The morning after the last of my fever, I feel like something sat on me all night pushing my bones into the earth of our campsite. I head toward the meadow to do my qi gong, but I stop inside the pines. I don’t want the sun, don’t know why. I study the pine needle ground and choose my spot. I face west. Maybe because I am already slow, creaky and sore, I move through all the movements without a hint of rushing, without becoming lost in the habit of it. Halfway through I hear a tinkling passing back and forth among the trees nearest me, like hummingbirds but not, like bells, like the shimmer of light on water it it were a sound. I think of Tinkerbell, sprinklings of fairy dust. I don’t even feel goofy for it; it feels like my soundest reference, in fact. Unseen bird or invisible beings in this grove? Whoever they are, it feels like a visitation. They don’t stay long. After, I press my palms together before my chest, quiet awe and gratitude seeping out of my skin, chasing away the last taste of fever. Thank you, all.
I dream another of those dreams that weave through the whole of my night. It’s elusive, even as I wake from it, even though I return to it again and again. There is a clear glass sphere, fog-filled, suspended in the air. The message, too, is ephemeral but clear. We are to take risks, make ourselves vulnerable. No wonder I am afraid so much of the time, I think. I woke up anxious again five mornings ago. It’s as though I reach a tipping point where it all becomes too much for me. My peace vanishes. Not the deeper peace at my bedrock but the one that lives as ease in my body. In a second dream there are large, looming pieces that need to be moved, like office machines, huge pieces of furniture, a big dark pile. There is a sense of urgency. They need to be moved right away, and it is hard, heavy work. When I lift up the last piece, I find the silver lining. Copper, actually. Uncovered now is a shiny, new-minted penny, as if it has been waiting for me. If I were to lean close, I’d be able to read the year it was made, but I don’t try. It doesn’t seem to matter. What matters is the penny lies heads up for good luck.
I remember sitting in the courtyard, during that same conference call with Sylvia Boorstein, looking at the magenta blossoms on my sprawling succulent in the orange pot. The blooms sprang to life the morning after our terrible windstorm, the greater part of a day and a night, gusts from 70 to 80 miles per hour, the worst I’ve lived through. Through it all I was working on a deadline to develop a website for my July writing retreat. It was impossible for me to give it my undivided attention. No matter what I did I couldn’t separate myself from my fear. The walls of my trailer shook and rattled in the wind. I said metta. I prayed all of us would be safe and unharmed–all the birds and small wild things, me and my neighbors inside our tin cans. But the next morning, when I saw how my succulent had burst into wild magenta bloom in spite of that terrible onslaught, that unbelievable battering, I thought, we need to be like this succulent. We need to respond to what is playing out now on our national stage with our own bright blossoming. Indeed, in the pink pussycat hats, the women’s marches, the way our judicial system is responding, the immigration protests, the country is doing just that. I have been especially bolstered by the fact that our “founding fathers” created our democracy with safeguards. I hadn’t counted on that. And again, I am proud to be a Californian in the midst of it all. I see our legislators and our governor trying to stand up, trying to do the right thing. I read an article the other day about a man in Los Angeles who is offering trainings to local activist organizations, teaching the self-care skills people will have to master in order to not be completely overwhelmed by the needs they are trying to meet now, particularly for those who serve the undocumented immigrant community. He sits them in a circle, places items for an altar at its center, let’s them talk about the toll these times are taking. And I want to honor each of them, every one of them, of you, for standing up. For being in the front lines. For giving response. For being our own fierce spring.
I’m taking Sylvia Boorstein’s online class that spans the year, “Mindfulness in Everyday Life.“ On a conference call in April, a woman asked her for advice on how to navigate the disturbing reality of life now in the United States with our sitting president. It comes up again and again in the meditation communities I’m a part of. I’m luckier than many in this, I think, in that I only read the newspaper. I imagine it’s easier than watching TV news. I can glance at headlines, skim stories, put the paper down when the clenching in my belly tells me to. I can look at still photographs of him, appalled by the ugly twist of his lips. It’s not as unsettling as listening to him “live.” When the question comes up in the conference call, I want to say what I believe is true. I can’t remember now if there was just not enough time left to raise my hand and speak, or if I hesitated, held myself back. Was I just self-conscious? Or did I convince myself what I wanted to say was too obvious? What I wanted to say is we have to have faith. Buddhists don’t work with that concept much. I think it’s because Buddhism is not something we need to take on faith. The Buddha didn’t expect that. He told us to try things out, to see for ourselves. So it makes sense to me that Buddhists may have more trouble in a time like this, a time when we are “forced” to watch an overweight, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic white man try to dismantle all the good that’s been put into place in recent years. Faith may not be an ordinary part of the equation, but we need it now. We need to believe the times we’re living in are a reaction to all the good progress we’ve made around the world. We need to believe this is the “getting worse” part before things get better. We need to believe this is not the beginning of the end, only the last-ditch effort to roll things back before we move together even more fully into the kind of world we want to live in always.
Twenty-nine years ago today, on April 18th, 1988, I quit smoking. The year before, I tried to quit eleven times, but this was the first one that stuck. It ran unbroken thirteen years and still holds sway over most of these past three decades. Because of this I notice April 18th out in the world. It’s a red number day for me. Isn’t April 18th the day Harprita had to have all the potions decocted and the twenty-seven soft blue bundles wrapped and ready for the ship in the novel I’m reading? And isn’t April 18th even a day in Angels in America? Is it the San Francisco earthquake, maybe?
I lean back in the sturdy metal chair in the courtyard, the big round cup of hot tea cradled in my hands. And then I remember. April 18th is the day you and I first laid eyes on each other on that southbound 80 bus. It’s the day I went home to hear that message on my machine from a possible sperm donor. That’s why I know the date, why I was able to trace it back later when I was halfway in love with you and the morning we first saw each other on the bus counted. When I think of you and I that first day at the back of the bus, I can feel the awkwardness between us. Because I think you scowl at me, I avoid looking in your direction and try instead to adjust to sitting in the stupid side-facing seat. I fuss and fidget some. I sigh in exasperation. I never stop being aware of you reading the paper nearby.
Didn’t our eyes meet again later on that first bus ride? Wasn’t it a less guarded look, over the tops of your glasses? Did we both look away? I think I may have watched you reading, too, that morning, chewing on your bottom lip, not looking at me. I know we talked about it years later. You wanted me that morning. I didn’t have a clue you felt that way then, me and my misinterpreted scowl. It still makes the corner of my lips curl to remember. You wanted me the first time you laid eyes on me. There’s a surprising satisfaction in knowing this. I am the cat licking cream from my paws.
Buddhist teachings keep me guessing. Depending on the teacher and the topic, I am reassured or doubtful, suspicious or yielding, intrigued or cross-eyed. Often things just make sense, ring true to me, familiar, like the life I’ve been living for decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something. Do I only think I understand, have been observing these same things in my life and in the world around me all these years? I’m not sure what makes me doubt myself, but doubt arises. And I’m not sure what inclines me to always calibrate. Is this something I already know? Do I only think I know it? Maybe it’s an old fear, not being enough. Maybe it’s only hubris. Or maybe it’s tied to the way I bristle over sentences that begin with, “Those of us who’ve been practicing for years—” The speaker means a formal sitting practice. But what if we’ve been practicing “off the cushion” all this time? I love sitting practice. I suspect it accelerates things. And it feels like a luxury, all that stillness, all that not doing. Of late I tend to divide my time between the “long breathing in, long breathing out” I’ve been learning and my metta practice. Since I decided to offer the writers retreat this summer in Joshua Tree, I have to bring myself back more than usual, my mind and heart busy dreaming up ideas. I’ve begun sitting with my eyes open more and more. I think I may be giving myself more permission to do what feels right to me, become less concerned with following the rules. But there’s still a part of me who wants to “do it right,” a part of me who wants to know if I’m delusional about the things I think I know. The other day people were talking about feeling one with the mountain. That seems easy and natural to me. But on the surface, I don’t buy the “no self” spiel. Because there is a me. There is my portion of spirit housed in this body. Unique in place and time. Never again will the two be joined, this same form and spirit. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling one with the mountain or the moon or the desert rat dying in my courtyard on a summer afternoon. Or with the ant I stepped on yesterday because I must have hurt him when I was sweeping the courtyard. I put my sandal down on him, my chest aching, to end his tortured movements. I may not buy the “no self” deal, but I do know we’re all one, the mountain and the moon and the rat and the ant—and me.
I’m doing sitting practice on a Thursday morning in March. All the windows are open. I can hear the low hum of the swamp cooler in the back room, feel puffs of air against my skin. When I open my eyes the bougainvillea in the courtyard catches my heart. I close them again, take a long breath in, a long breath out. I feel a familiar tightness in my belly, like it might be messing with my breath. I stay with the feeling, sink deeper. All at once I know this part of me has been afraid for 59 years. The knowing floors me. I’m heartbroken for her. Her dedication humbles me, decades of being afraid on my behalf, wanting to keep me safe. I talk to her. I tell her how sorry I am she’s been afraid all these years and I didn’t know. I invite her to let go. I’ll be afraid again, I say, but you no longer need to hold it all the time. I am bowled over by her sheer strength, to have held this fear all my life. I cry, cradle my belly with my palms, my forearms, both sad and grateful for her sacrifice. I’ve known my fat was a way to protect myself, but this deepens my sense of this. Was my body trying to cocoon this ball of ancient fear, buffer her, maybe, so her efforts might be just a little easier? It’s okay now, I tell her. We’re safe here, I say. We’re safe here doing sitting practice beside the open sliding glass door, the house finch chattering in the courtyard. (Well, safe barring maybe an earthquake, I think.) I tell her she can come on duty now only as needed. You don’t need to do this all the time, I say. I don’t know if she can unfurl just like that, but I vow to remind her again and again. I am still made dumb by what she’s done, this gallantry, the immensity of this feat. It’s okay, I tell her again. It’s okay to rest now in between, I say. Rest, the way the deer’s body relaxes when the danger’s passed, the way she returns to ease, nibbles more grass. Rest, the way the white-crowned sparrows drop down one by one from the bougainvillea after I walk by, going back to eating seeds from the ground, talking music. Rest, I tell her. Sleep, even, if you can. I’ll be right here.